Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In Review: The Xinowa Sej piano ensemble at Live at LICA

Xinowa Sej
'three pianos, six hands'
The Xinowa Sej piano ensemble at Live at LICA,
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University
Thursday 31st January 2013
Reviewed by Henry Prince

It was an evening of the kind of happy coincidences that put real joy in life. Three females radiant with youth who had known one another for 20 years (“we were introduced as babies”), three pianos (all Steinway grands) and an appreciative audience - all in the same place (the Great Hall at Lancaster University) at the same time. Not forgetting of course the programme, which included three-piano arrangements of Frank Proto’s “Carmen Fantasy”, Mozart’s Lodron concerto, Ravel’s “La Valse” and three tangos by Piazzolla, with a dash of Star Wars for an encore. And not just any three pianists. These hailed from Transylvania (the Romanian part but of Hungarian culture), Brussels (half Italian, half German) and Japan and they all met at the University of Arts in Berlin. Happy coincidences!

We learned that the group’s name was derived from selected letters of a favourite musician (“Rachmaninow”) plus the addition of the letter “X” (because it was the only one that fitted, apparently). Whatever the origin of its name, the ensemble thrilled the listeners. At first it seemed unlikely that the arrangements could truly justify the expense of three pianos. The Carmen Fantasy was enjoyable and full of fun but wasn't the scoring simply that for a single piano marked so that each player knew which bit was hers to play next? The slightly different styles of the performers (and perhaps the different timbres of the instruments?) certainly added to the enjoyment when a phrase was passed from one piano to the next and when two performers seemed to be playing pretty much the same notes in unison, the double tracking effect was interesting. But when the Ravel got into full swing after the interval, we all knew that all three pianos were at last working to full capacity.

There was even a game of musical chairs going on throughout the concert: no pianist played consecutive pieces at the same piano. This made it impossible to determine who the overall leader was and the only conclusion that could be drawn is that members of the ensemble exerted equal authority. It was pure joy to observe the organic functioning of the group. For a technical reason, the players rarely looked at one another. Yet the quality of ensemble playing seemed to imply the presence of an invisible conductor. (Conductors beware: this ensemble is living proof that your presence on the concert platform can only be by reason of your own vanity.) It was nearly all done by aural connection. (The rubato section of La Valse succeeded wonderfully.) Only very occasionally was eye contact necessary and when it was required, pianist 1 looked at pianist 2 who looked at pianist 3 and off they went.

This report would not be complete without reference to the staging of the Piazzolla Tangos, which began with a single performer on stage. She was casually joined in due course by a second performer with the two becoming three after a further suitable interval. Curiously, the third performer lowered her music stand. The reason for this became clear only later when she unexpectedly began to slap the strings with her hand.

Finally, the “technical reason” for the miserly eye contact of the players which made the brilliant ensemble playing even more remarkable was this: the players sat with their backs to one another! Against all logical expectation, it certainly seemed to work.

H. Prince

Tickets for the performance cost: Adults £17.50, Seniors, unemployed and disabled (essential companion free) £14.50, students and under 16s £7.
To book future events with LICA call the box office on 01524 594151 or visit

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